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Code completion AI bot trend continues with GitHub Copilot

GitHub Copilot joins a ballooning field of AI-powered code completion tools. Industry experts debate the tool's utility and long-term staying power.

Microsoft's GitHub Copilot, a tool that can suggest the next line of code and sometimes entire functions, is now available to all developers -- for a price.

GitHub Copilot translates natural language to code and supplies developers with a range of suggestions ranging from boilerplate code to complex algorithms. Released in June last year as a free technical preview to 1.2 million developers, the tool is now available to GitHub's entire community of more than 83 million users, according to GitHub.

The code completion tool, available as an extension for JetBrains IDEs, Neovim, Visual Studio and Visual Studio Code, joins a growing list of competitors. While AI bots like Copilot continue to trend, further advances in AI technology may make code completion less relevant in the future, according to industry experts.

"This is a new realm of 'code completion,' and I'm really excited about it," said Chris Riley, senior manager of developer relations at marketing tech firm HubSpot. "Beyond the cool factor, in theory this will help improve application quality and potentially support standards and better coding practices."

This is a new realm of 'code completion,' and I'm really excited about it.
Chris RileySenior manager of developer relations, HubSpot

However, developers should use Copilot with caution, because it learns from the code of other developers -- and people tend to make mistakes, said Yura Abharian, senior software engineer at SoftServe, an IT services and consulting company based in Austin, Texas.

GitHub Copilot licenses, which are currently only available to individual users, cost $10 per month or $100 per year. However, students enrolled in GitHub's Global Campus Program and maintainers of popular open source GitHub projects -- identified when a user navigates to the GitHub Copilot subscription page -- will still be able to use the tool for free. An enterprise edition is slated for release later this year, said Thomas Dohmke, GitHub's CEO, in a blog post.

Riley isn't put off by the price tag. "$100 a year seems like an almost trivial price."

Code completion tools for developers are trending -- for now

The list of bots that can write code and augment developer productivity-- such as Kite, DeepMind's Alphacode, IBM's Project CodeNet --  gets longer every month, said Diego Lo Giudice, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.

The trend looks set to continue for the foreseeable future. "Nearly all development tools will include an AI bot by the end of 2022," Forrester Research said in its 2022 software development predictions report.

But some developers aren't convinced the trend is warranted. AI can't currently match humans in solving a wide range of tasks at once, and this is exactly what is required for programming, said Leonid Ivankin, an Android developer at MTS Group, a mobile telesystems company.

While the idea of code completion tools looks attractive, he tried a similar solution from Codota -- now called Tabnine -- but it didn't work, he said.

"The AI offered me a large piece of code close to what was needed, but it had to be heavily customized and corrected every time," Ivankin said.

However, the field of automated code completion tools is progressing, said Larry Carvalho, an independent analyst at RobustCloud. More companies are developing tools to translate developer intention to code, which will cause products like GitHub Copilot to be less relevant in the future, he said.

This article was updated following initial publication. 

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